Causes of Cognitive Dissonance

Instructor: Nathan Kilgore

Nathan has taught college Psychology, Sociology, English, and Communications and has a master's degree in education.

This lesson considers the primary causes of cognitive dissonance, a state that occurs when conflicting beliefs and desires clash, causing anxiety and discomfort.

What is Cognitive Dissonance?

Suppose a man reads a health book that gives tips on maintaining a good diet for weight loss, such as staying away from sugary foods. The man thinks to himself, 'This is a great idea!' After reading the book, he becomes determined to go on a diet, hoping to lose a few pounds of weight.

Later that day when lured by the smell of a freshly baked cake, he finds he can't resist the urge to indulge in the sugary treat. He thinks to himself, 'That smells like chocolate, and I love chocolate!' The man then has a conflict: He wants to lose weight as much as he wants to enjoy the cake.

When our minds struggle with conflicts such as this one, we may be experiencing cognitive dissonance. Cognitive Dissonance Theory suggests that when a person's beliefs and desires conflict, they will experience discomfort as they become aware of the inconsistency.

The theory of cognitive dissonance was introduced in 1957 by Leon Festinger. He explained that we carry many ideas and beliefs about our world and self. When these held beliefs collide, a state of tension is experienced. This tension is defined as cognitive dissonance. But what causes cognitive dissonance? Let's take a look at the kinds of circumstances or experiences set the stage for this state to occur.

When Does Dissonance Occur?

One primary cause of dissonance is new information. When an individual gains new information, specifically information that is contradictory to previously learned information, a lack of congruence is experienced. As in our earlier example, once the man learned about the health benefit to avoiding sugary treats, he began to set the stage for cognitive dissonance.

Imagine a child is brought up to believe it is acceptable to lie. Perhaps they are raised in a home where they witness their parents continually not telling the truth. Sometime later, they are taught in school that it is bad to lie. The new information forms a confrontation in the child's mind. As you might imagine, the child struggles with the conflicting teachings on honesty.

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